Thank God Somebody Still Funds Russian Studies

Once upon a time, when the Kremlin had 30,000 nuclear weapons pointed at the United States, funding Russian studies was very much in fashion. Then the Cold War ended and many funders moved on.

But not all of them. The Carnegie Corporation of New York is probably the biggest funder still in the Russian studies game, and that's a good thing, given what's going on right now. 

It didn’t take long for references to a “New Cold War” to dominate the debate over the crisis in Ukraine, a conversation often marked by a shallow understanding of the historical and cultural forces at play in the showdown. 

It’s precisely that kind of narrow and shallow thinking that Carnegie wants to combat through a recent $346,700 grant for two years to Middlebury College’s Graduate Initiative in Russian Studies.

Carnegie describes how the decline of area studies in graduate foreign affairs programs has led to a lack of student exposure “to the subtleties of history, cultural anthropology, literature, sociology and other important fields that are critical to understanding contemporary Russia.”

That deficit in higher education has long been a keen interest of Carnegie's president, Vartan Gregorian. One of Gregorian's first jobs as an academic, back in the early 1970s, was teaching Armenian and Caucasian history at the University of Pennsylvania. 

In the absence of a nuanced understanding of Russia and Ukraine, the reflex of many American leaders was to view Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and continued fighting between separatist groups and Ukrainian security forces in the country’s eastern region, through a Cold War lens. Some, like Senator John McCain, suggested a tougher tit-for-tat, confrontational posture towards Russia that could make the New Cold War narrative a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Middlebury’s Monterey Institute of International Studies, home of the Russian Studies program, “brings the best and the brightest among Russian scholars, researchers, and analysts for periods of up to two weeks each to teach students.” Ultimately, the goal of the program is to deemphasize outmoded and stagnant theories about the economic and political workings of the Cold War that drive critical discussions by encouraging the next generation of Russia experts to "to assess Russian domestic developments and analyze how the developments inform Russia’s foreign policy.”

The long-term goal of the Russian Studies initiative seems to be systemic change in graduate education, aiming “to potentially inspire changes in other Russian studies graduate programs throughout the country.”

This is not the first, nor the biggest grant the Carnegie Corporation has given to Middlebury’s Monterey Institute. In June 2013, they awarded $2,000,000 for a duration of 48 months in support of the Monterey Institute work with the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, which aims to supplement the efforts of the often anemic, yet essential efforts of The International Atomic Energy Agency. This latest grant from Carnegie suggests a continued and deepening relationship on programs related to pressing international security issues.